Alien Skin Undressed: flip my switch, I'm electronic
Spread over 3 parts and 3 blog posts, I trace my musical development from initially being disinterested in music as a child, to my obsession with bands and the passionate addiction to writing & creating music myself a few years later, through to Real Life and Alien Skin today. Read parts 1 & 2 here.
Part Three: flip my switch, I'm electronic
The very early 1980s were a time of great change that had begun a few years earlier: the Afghanistan war, the Thatcher government in Britain that brought harsh austerity along with it, the Reagan government in the US, which followed the social/economic drive of Thatcher, but to a larger scale. It was rather a bleak period: the Falklands War, riots in the UK which galvanized the politicalization of music, especially with iconic UK bands like The Clash and many others.
Photo circa 1987: Braedan, John, George, Steve. Click photo for larger image.
Out of this immersed a new electronic movement, spurned on by Germany's Kraftwerk and the desire to create something new and untried: a brave new world - musically anyhow. To many who wanted to do and create something different, punk was a starting point, but at the same time some, like me, considered it a rehash of older movements, that still relied heavily on the same instrumentation and bands performing in much the same way as before. Hence the appeal of alternative electronic music, ala Kraftwerk, Gary Numan (especially the song 'Are Friends Electric?') and others, to many of us.
It took me, personally, a little time to embrace the new way forward, resenting & rejecting it at first, after all I had spent much of my life, thus far, learning to be a guitarist in a 70's rock band. But the lure was intense, and what I was hearing from newer bands slowly began getting beneath my skin to the point where I could no longer deny the appeal of the new world emerging around me.
I purchased my first cheap string synthesizer that had 2 sounds: a string synth and an organ. Originally it was bought to add another colour & texture to the guitar arrangements of the rock band I was in, and to try to emulate what I was hearing on the radio. I was now playing guitar and synth on some songs in rehearsal but this was still unsatisfactory. A Korg PolySix was the next acquisition, being my first 'real' analogue synth with gorgeously warms string pads that helped convince me that it was time to move on. 'Dare' (late 1981) by the Human League, was the first exclusively electronic album that I first really listened to and loved.
Photo circa 1986: Steve, George, Andrew, John. Click photo for larger image.
Dispensing with all my guitar gear and all the skill I had mastered, I began a steep learning curve, and an expensive one at that. Soon after I started accumulating electronic gear, I discovered the work of Depeche Mode. It was this discovery: the unique electronic perspective of the band on their records and the way they performed live, together with Martin Gore's superlative song writing, that forever cemented my passion for electronic music. From Depeche Mode's work I understood that I could continue as a 'traditional' songwriter within this new genre, and also that nothing stood in the way of a good song. Depeche Mode showed me that all was possible and they were my beacon light for many years when most other artists abandoned their early electronic roots, in the mid to later 80s.
And so, after many trials and tribulations I formed Strange Silence in 1983-4: a four piece band with myself on keyboards, a guitarist, bassist and vocalist. It wasn't my ideal line up but the only one that was possible at the time. Glaswegian vocalist, Stephen Beckett (now a producer of theatre in Tasmania), had one of the best & preferred voices I could ever have wished for; to me a cross between Jim Kerr (Simple Minds) & Robert Smith (The Cure). And a talented songwriter to boot. We did a number of gigs in Melbourne between 1985 and 1988, alas, the band found little success. Ironically, even though it was the 80s, we found it difficult to continue performing with the electronic ideal we originally had; various members were pulling in different directions, with me remaining the sole person wishing to continue the synth path.
Listen to the song 'Slaughter' from 1987 with Stephen Beckett on vocals with my production.
Here's a live performance by Strange Silence in Melbourne 1986.
Photo circa 1986: with Steve, George, John, Andrew. Click photo for larger image.
To cut a long story short, much to my chagrin, Strange Silence ended in 1988. In 1989 I joined a friend's band, Division 4,and filled in as a replacement keyboardist for a year. After this episode came to a conclusion I began drifting without any particular direction or plan, there were a few joint ventures: Monday Loves Friday, with Chris Gaskall was a particularly memorable one, but again, it bore no fruit aside from a collection of good songs. In 1993 I was invited, through a mutual friend, to have a meeting with Real Life and although it took 2 more years for me to actually work with the band, it all came together in 1995.
Newspaper review, circa 1985. Click photo for larger image.
Meltdown was the first song (by David Sterry/Danny Simcic) that I was asked to contribute production ideas to. I remember quite a few sessions with the guys, which ended up being the start of the recording of the album 'Happy'. Of the ten songs, half of which were already written, I co-wrote five with David. It was a memorable experience for me, culminating in a successful tour of the US and Germany in 1998. I've already written a couple of blogs documenting both tours.
Real Life signed with Momentum Records (US) in 1997 who released the album in the US and looked after us while we were on tour August/September 1998. As is often the case, being a small indie label, they were unable to financially exist after a period, so once more the band was without a Label. 1999 saw the release of 'Happier', a remix album that spawned some of my favourite Real Life recordings. We revisited the US in 2000 to perform with OMD and others at Synthstock 2000, in Salt Lake City. A memorable concert in front of thousands. We returned one last time in 2004 performing 'Imperfection', our final album. In 2005, with damaged hearing from years of live work, and fearing going deaf, I decided it was time to leave the band.
Alien Skin was born in 2008 with the release of 'Don't Open Till Doomsday', my debut album. After so many years of working in collaboration with other people, Alien Skin allows me to tread the path alone; create music the way I prefer to do it, reap the praise and face the criticism, but at least I know it to be my own personal work and I stand or fall based on the decisions I make. There are no great monetary rewards doing what I do, and the way I choose to do it, but being autonomous gives me a great sense of creative satisfaction. The industry has changed significantly over the past decade, so much so that I feel I'm walking in a different universe from the one I initially began work in. There are positives and let downs, but mostly I believe it has been good, and many of us as independents would not survive or be able to produce and distribute our work the way I do, had technology not developed as it has.
As I have written before, and I believe I speak for most independents (read self-financed, self-everything), the most meaningful support we can receive from people who enjoy our creative work, is for you to support us by purchasing our music. It is the only way we can successfully continue to create our music and present it on a professional level, sounding & looking (as much as possible) as good as major artists.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my 3 part blog post: Alien Skin Undressed.